Historically speaking, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Volume XVII may be the most essential MST3K DVD package since Rhino issued “Manos, the Hands of Fate” and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” on one single, hilariously cineastic disc. There’s no Gypsy or Cambot figurine to accompany the two-inch Crow and Tom Servo figurines fans may or may not have been awarded for their diligent, patient purchases over the last few years (insert “wink” emoticon for the benefit of Shout! Factory staffers here), but this season’s four-disc set comprises yet another tempered blend of the program’s various stages, and yet another five hours of camp-value examination as probing as it is tickling.
Once again halving the collection to give equal time to both cast incarnations of the long-running, late-night spoof show, Shout! has dipped deep into MST3K‘s chronological barrel to include their first non-KTMA episode: “The Crawling Eye,” which aired on The Comedy Channel in 1989. The inclusion is more rewarding for the insight it provides into the program’s genesis than for pure laughs; the bots get off some great lines as the tentacle-y ocular organs wreak havoc on the inhabitants of the tiny, snowbound mountain town, but Joel’s still awkwardly apologizing for his smart-ass inventions’ behavior at this point, and one can feel that the cast and crew aren’t quite as comfortable with the deprecating-yet-benign tone they’d later embrace with near-religious zeal. Still, it’s fascinating to watch a manifestation of MST3K that believes so wholesomely in its Saturday morning cartoon-grade guinea pig torture premise: While later seasons would wisely defenestrate the smarmily experimental feel for lack of creator Joel Hodgson’s crucially mechanical input, the show’s debut season still fancied itself as a research trailblazer in the field of human torment-by-failed art (just hear the observant comments by Dr. Forrester and Dr. Erhardt in the gawky sketch padding).
As usual, I find more to bust up over in the Mike Nelson entries, which tend to take the comedy of the program far more seriously than any other aspect. (In fact, after Trace Beaulieu jumped ship and Mary Jo Pehl took his place as primary antagonist in the show’s non-plot, the act of screening crappy movies became a mechanism for pure cerebral punishment with nearly Beckett-esque pointlessness, a personal hell many theatrical film critics may identify with.) “The Final Sacrifice” is justifiably a fan favorite, showcasing a gloriously cheesy, Canadian student horror film about a hood-wearing cult bent on world, or maybe just backyard, domination—and best of all, the boyish protagonist is abetted by a grizzled prospector who appears to be the love child of Yosemite Sam and Tom Waits (“Consarn it!...I was gonna sing something from Bone Machine”). It’s a fantastically bad film with incisive riffs, all of which reminds us that Canada’s film industry generates plenty of crap too. “Blood Waters of Dr. Z” isn’t quite as archetypically awful, though the titular scientist’s evil army of giant, virtually immobile fish is up there with the nonfunctional octopus of Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.
But the other “Joel” episode in the set, “The Beatniks,” is historically significant for non-MST3K reasons. Part of the show’s mission statement was always to promote the awareness of interestingly bad films, and as voice talent Paul Frees’s only effort as writer-director, The Beatniks is one of the most fascinating out there. It’s hard to believe that an unspeakably intuitive performer like Frees—who invested his kaleidoscopic range of characters with such genuine emotion, whether they were unnamed extras in a cartoon like The Point! or Teutonic, animatronic birds perched forever more in Disneyland’s Tiki Room—could fumble so egregiously, but this is a movie that confuses “beatniks” with “delinquents” and features so many continuity errors that one can count the number of properly stitched-together scenes on a single hand. The story, about a rising teenage heartthrob of a singer who runs afoul of the law due to irresponsible friends and a hot temper, is the sort of thing Stan Freberg wouldn’t have even needed to alter to make parodic, though it does allow Joel and the bots to offer us a guide to determining whether or not one is a beatnik.
In my review of the Volume XVI DVD I pointed out how much Shout! Factory's Satellite of Love releases were improving A/V-wise; however, either the novelty of the 3D menus, some of which feature maddeningly poor selection functionality, has worn off or someone was asleep at the wheel while putting together set XVII. Some of the digital blur and comby artifacting must be blamed on the age of the shows (XVII features the national TV debut of MST3K, which itself contains a hideous transfer of The Crawling Eye), but subpar telecine shouldn't affect the quality of menu screens, which here seem rather shoddy compared to the last set. Still, ramshackle production values have always been part of the charm of MST3K, so it makes sense that this ethos should leak into DVD mastering; one wonders how Joel/Mike and the bots will make Blu-ray seem DIY in the years to come. The audio quality, as with earlier sets, is wholly adequate, though mixed a little low during "riff" sequences.
Volume XVII contains one of the best-ever Mysty special features: "Crow vs. Crow," a taped live interview between Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett at DragonCon '09. Running nearly 40 minutes, the talk recounts the birth of Crow, the development the character underwent, and how Corbett took both the puppet and the personality over after Beaulieu's departure. The funniest moment: Beaulieu discusses the one regrettable instance in which he took the Crow puppet home, whereupon he found devilishly plasticine eyes staring at him from across the room wherever he went. The set also features an introduction to The Crawling Eye by Joel that discusses the show's national breakthrough, and an interview with Final Sacrifice star Bruce J. Mitchell, who seems wholly mystified and amused by his cult reputation.
I own more than two polo shirts, so I guess I'm not a beatnik. Darn.